Dear Principal Hotline,
I’m the vice principal of a small school. My principal has a habit of informing everyone about who has called to say they will not be in for the day and why, and sometimes the reasons are medical. I find this disturbing. An accident kept me out of work for two days. I was told by some that the reason for my absence was divulged. Is this legal? Does this fall under HIPAA?
Stop Talking About Me
Dear Stop Talking About Me,
While this is definitely a violation of your boundaries, your boss is probably not violating HIPAA. According to LexisNexis, “The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA, protects the privacy and security of patient health information. […] It is generally true that HIPAA does not apply to employers simply because they collect employee health information.”
Your principal cannot call your doctor and demand access to your records. They also cannot show anyone a copy of or divulge the information contained in your doctor’s note. Unfortunately, though, a conversation you have via telephone explaining you will miss a few days of work after having an accident is not protected by this particular law.
Your district or local municipality may govern which information is protected and under which circumstances. I’m not an attorney. So I won’t wander further into giving you legal advice. (I am available if any agents are listening and would like me to play a lawyer on TV, though.) You may contact your union representative to discuss your rights and acquire counsel if it comes to that. Or, if you do not have a union or have opted out of union membership, your local labor board should also be able to give you a quick, accurate answer regarding whether any laws have been broken.
All of that said, how much did your principal divulge? And to whom? As an administrator, your absence is conspicuous. It affects everyone in the building, and your coworkers are probably concerned about your well-being. Your principal has to provide some sort of explanation. Going forward, you can (and should) tell your principal what you’re comfortable with them sharing with anyone who is looking for you. Telling the teacher that their observation was canceled because the vice principal had an accident and will be out for two weeks is probably within reason. Casually telling a random telemarketer that the vice principal fell off a ladder, broke their tibia, and had to have surgery is not.
You may also want to approach your principal in a way that frames the issue so you’re being supportive. For example, say, “I would like to talk to you when you have a chance because I’ve heard that some of our staff have concerns. I’d like to share them with you.” Use broad terms: It was brought to my attention ... or someone mentioned to me in confidence ...
Explain to the principal that you’re worried an employee’s rights may be violated when certain information is shared. Offer your assistance to help avoid future problems. Ultimately, you’re on the same team. I mention this a lot, but building a rapport with your supervisors, coworkers, and employees is vital for having the difficult conversations. If things are already tense, both parties are going to interpret each other’s actions differently.
Contacting human resources is, of course, also an option. But you should probably only do so once you’re sure your principal is doing something illegal or outside district policy.
- Make your boundaries clear.
- Talk to your union rep and/or a labor expert.
- Have a conversation with your principal.
- Seek help from district administration.
And, as always, breathe.
Every problem presents an opportunity. Talking to your principal about labor issues from the subordinate’s perspective will make you a stronger leader when you have your own building. You’re not alone, and you’ve got this.
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